Senator Robert Nichols (Rep-Jacksonville) is well known to East Texas and the State Legislature, serving as Texas Senator to District 3, which covers 19 East Texas counties, including Anderson.
A plastics manufacturing engineer, he graduated with a B.S. in industrial engineering from Lamar University in 1968. Nichols has built four manufacturing plants, earned 32 U.S. and 128 foreign patents, and created more than 900 jobs for East Texans.
You could say that manufacturing and community service are in his blood, that he came by it honestly, that the acorn didn’t fall far from the tree.
Robert was one of six children to Talley Nichols, a name long remembered in the world of toys. Talley Nichols was the owner of Nichols Industries and Circle N Toys, the maker of toy cap guns.
Nichols Industries, Inc. was stated in 1948 and manufactured toy cap pistols and other items until 1965, when it was sold to Kusan Toys.
Although Talley Nichols wanted to go to MIT, the son of a Methodist preacher, he ended up studying to be an engineer at SMU, where he would meet this wife.
After college, with mouths to feed, Talley went to work for United Gas.
The day after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Lewis Nichols, Talley’s younger brother, enlisted in the army. After basic training he was sent overseas to Trucial, Oman on the western side of the Persian Gulf. It was during this time that Lewis and his brother, Talley, would go into business together. Lewis sent all of his money home for Talley to invest and they agreed to go into the manufacturing business after the war ended to make consumer goods.
Talley resigned from his job at United Gas and bought a machine shop from an aging gun smith. Lacking machine shop skills, Talley applied for a job with a larger machine shop, Kannenstien Laboratories, who made inspection gauges for the war effort and soaked up everything he could on how things worked in a machine shop. After a year, Talley resigned, went to the post office and found a set of blue prints for a part he thought he could make easily, took out a loan, built a special machine and started making screws, latter adding fuse parts throughout the war.
Corresponding with his brother, the duo decided to manufacture cigarette lighters when the war was over, however, just as they were about to get started, the government decided to release 15,000,000 war surplus cigarette lighters. The brothers went back to the drawing board, looking for something that would be marketable and no one had yet cornered the market on.
Toys, toy guns to be specific, was the idea they came up with.
The first gun they decided to make in 1946, the Silver Pony, was modeled after a Colt 45, known as the Peacemaker – the gun that won the west. It was a two-thirds scale model. It took the Nichols approximately siix months to get their tool shop together to make their first gun. In the beginning, Talley and Lewis did all the die casting and their wives, Ruth and Phyllis, did the assembly operations and packaging. They were living in Pasadena at the time.
The next gun was called the Mustang and later referred to as the Silver Mustang, followed by the Silver Colt.
Robert said he remembers going across a little bridge from his house to the factory and picking out whatever guns he wanted to play with and taking them back to share with the kids in the neighborhood.
“No one ever said a thing to us about it,” he said. “The employees just laughed. They thought it was funny.”
Robert shared that like all companies, the company struggled at first to find its market. The first year they made guns and trucks would come and buy them out every day until one day the trucks didn’t come anymore. They kept making guns thinking the trucks would return until they had an overstock of guns and realized the Christmas buying was over.
When they finally found their industrial groove, the company began to develop one new gun a year.
Circle N Toys was no small time operation. Their guns were carried across the nation in stores and catalogs, including the Sears & Roebucks Catalog.
Robert recalls Talley liked to do was surprise people. He learned that from Henry Ford. Henry Ford would not show you next year’s model. He kept it top secret until the big reveal. The big show back in those days for toy makers was the International Toy Show in New York.
This was before the day of convention centers, when vendors would all purchase a hotel room in the same hotel and buyers would go to each room to make orders for their store or company.
For the 1950 toy show, the sales reps wanted Talley to create a gun that would sell for .29 cents. That wasn’t what he wanted to make. What he really wanted to make was a full-scale Colt Peacemaker toy gun, called the Stallion 45, with a rotating cylinder with an unloading cartrage and round cap bullets that would fire a puff of smoke, and that’s just what he did, keeping the project under wraps until the toy show. Instead of .29 cents, the gun sold for $2.98, which would be like a $50 toy gun on today’s market. This made his sales reps so mad they all quit at the toy show.
Robert said Talley and Lewis manned the booth themselves. The first day they only sold a few dozen and began to sweat their decision. The next day, they came up the elevator to their hotel room to show their wares and the hall was packed with people. They couldn’t figure out what was going on until they opened the door to their hotel room and everyone flooded in to purchase the newest model. There were so many people, they would have to close the door, take orders from people, let them out and let more in and close the door. This went on all day and by the end of the day they had sold as many as they figured they could make in one year, however, the toy show said they couldn’t close their booth. So Talley went home, began making guns, and left Lewis at the show telling him to show guns but not sell any more orders. Lewis showed up in Texas the next day with more orders.
The Stallion 45 was declared the “Toy of the Year” at the World Toy Fair in New York City in 1950.
“That particular gun actually changed the dynamics of Western toy guns, because everybody for a while was just trying to make them cheaper and cheaper,” Robert said. “But they realized there was a market for good, high-quality toy gun. That people would pay for it. All the toy gun collectors unanimously agree that gun was the No. 1 toy cap gun ever made.”
When Talley began making guns, he started with the idea of making replicas of the guns being featured in Western movies, but he realized he never stopped to ask his children, or any other children, what kind of gun they would like.
“I remember him coming to me when I was around 9 years old and saying, ‘We are are a bunch of grownups who don’t play with toy guns, designing toy guns, but we haven’t asked any children what they would really like,’” Robert said.
“He asked me, ‘If you could design a toy gun, what would you want?’ I was so excited. I didn’t know what the term for engravings, I just called them curly cues. ‘It’s go to have these little curly cues down the side to make it look fancy.’ I said, ‘No one has ever made a gun with red grips, it’s gotta have red grips.’ It was until about a month or two later he came and put that gun in my hand. I still have that gun. Then they introduced it to the market and it was probably the worst selling gun they ever made.”
By 1954 Pasadena began to boom with new industry. Tired of competing for a workforce, Talley decided to move his company to East Texas. He looked at bringing their company to both Crockett and Palestine, but it was Jacksonville that received them with the warmest welcome and that is where they decided to put down roots.
Robert said that Talley believed in taking care of his employees.
“He was really, always, kind of ahead of his time,” Robert said. “He was big on taking care his employees.”
The Jacksonville warehouse campus also featured a park with ponds, a swimming pool and train ride for the kids and he believed in paying his employees well.
Although Robert owns his own ranch, complete with longhorns and buffalos, Talley never did, but you would have thought he did. He dressed the part everywhere he went, with western shirts, cowboy hats, boots and bolo ties. He named his factory Nichols Ranch. Everything down to the company news letter called “Smoke Signals,” promoted cowboy culture.
Talley even had his family dress the part.
“I didn’t even own a pair of regular shoes until I was in high school,” Robert said. “When I went to church I wore a western tie or a bolo, that’s the way we dressed.” Robert added, “He never owned a cow or anything, but he was in the business of selling Western toy guns.”
Robert recalls that all the boys in the family worked at the plant at one point or another, but none of them had cushy jobs. They all worked in the trenches, doing some of the hardest jobs in the factory.
“Here you are in the hot summer, furnace going close by, wearing a big face shield and industrial apron, by, long sleeve shirts dipping the mold into the hot zinc,” Robert said. “If it splashed on you, it could hurt you bad. I still have a scar on my ankle from not wearing socks and the zinc splashing down on the ground and splashing up on me. I recall him telling us, ‘Do this, it’ll probably be good for you,’ and it probably was.”
Robert recalls around 1957 being the heyday of the company. Over time, the market for toy guns began to decline. Television went from Westerns to space and detectives shows. Eventually the demand began to drop. By the early 60s the market for toy guns was gone. Talley’s team tried their hands at other toys and household goods. They finally decided it was time to get out of the business and sold their toy company to another company without a line of toy guns.
Talley was also very involved in his community. He was a member of many civic organizations, a Lon Morris College trustee, on the board of Austin Bank and a member of the First United Methodist Church. He was recognized as East Texas Man of the Year in 1959 and also served at two-year term as mayor of Jacksonville.
By the early 1980s, they toy gun company had changed hands several times and the Nichols got word that their toy line was closing. They wouldn’t be making any more of the Nichols line toy guns. When Robert got word that there was no longer a Nichols toy line he said he began to wish he had stopped to collect one of everyone the company had made. He went to his dad, but Talley had only kept a few.
“My dad told me, ‘When your biggest problem is that you have a warehouse full of those things, and you can’t get anyone to sell them, the last thing that is on your mind is saving one,” Robert said.
He then went to the factory and collected what he could from them before they closed. By this time in life, Robert had his own manufacturing facility in Jacksonville and he decided he would put a sign out at work to see if he could find more.
“Everyone in town, at some point, either worked at the toy gun factory, or had family that worked there, and some of them had come to work for me, or had family that I had employed, and the all had tons of toy guns, so I put up a sign that said I would pay cash for these model toys guns and people brought them to me,” Robert said. “Some of them were broken, but I kept those as well so I could use them for spare parts.”
Over the years, Robert has amassed a nice collection of his family’s toy gun line.
Now cap guns are collectibles and are highly valued. The prices are quite high compared to the original prices of the guns, holsters and other memorabilia. There are people who highly value and exclusively collect the Nichols cap guns.
For those who are interested in the history of the company, Tally’s family urged him to write a book, “A Brief History of Nichols Industries, Inc., And Its Toy Guns,” a recollection of the history of the company, the toy guns, the people involved and brief look at Americana during the years after World War II. The book details the beginnings after the war, until the sale to Kusan and the last toy cap pistols came off the assembly line in late 1982.
Nichols was first elected to the Texas Senate in 2006. Prior to serving in the state senate, Nichols was mayor of Jacksonville and served on the Jacksonville City Council. He and his wife, Donna, have three children. He is a board member of the East Texas Medical Center.